Director Erik Matti is known for narrating thought-provoking commentary through his well-crafted films—how public officials play dirty politics through On the Job (2013), how families fall prey into financial scams through Honor Thy Father (2015), and how one stays faithful despite the odds through Seklusyon (2016). Now, with action-packed film BuyBust, the grand opener to this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival, Matti tackles how the government facilitates its war on drugs, in an angle that allows viewers to know that there’s more to the war than what meets the eye.

Nina Manigan, an embittered PDEA cop who had just escaped from a failed operation that saw the demise of her old squad, is taken in by another squad led by new team leader Bernie Lacson. The new squad gets assigned to a buy-bust operation aiming to capture major drug lord Biggie Chen, facilitated by police officers Alvarez and Dela Cruz with the help of captured asset Teban. The plan goes severely awry, and the squad gets trapped within labyrinthine slums-turned-secret drug hotspot, caught in between vicious drug pushers with shrewd escape plans and poor residents who have had enough of being pawns of the endless struggle. 

BuyBust tells this tale successfully with a combination of cinematic elements that work well as one whole. Cinematographer Neil Derrick Bion brilliantly captures the fight scenes that are clearly thought through by fight director Sonny Sison. One scene to watch out for is a seamless three-minute single take of Manigan taking down numerous scoundrels swarming around her from multiple levels of the slums. That, among many other breathtaking scenes, is effective in painting a picture of literal and figurative entrapment in a maze of dilapidated houses and in a frustrating battle that does not seem to end. 

Musical scorers Erwin Romulo and Malek Lopez also provide a varied take on creating music for action films, shifting from the typical ominously energetic score that drives viewers to the edge of their seats, and then to the unusual use of native instruments and old-school songs which does work, with its contrast leading to what is an ironic turn of events.

The meticulously chosen set of actors also serve justice in their respective roles. Anne Curtis strays away from her romantic-comedy persona and surprises the audiences with performing daring action scenes and stunts, most of which she does herself. Martial artist Brandon Vera is a sight to behold with the lengths his character takes to find means to escape. Outstanding performances from Alex Calleja, Joross Gamboa, Arjo Atayde and other supporting actors also take things in the film to the next level.

What these elements form is a story that needs to be told. The war on drugs in the Philippines has been a long-standing issue, and the country has heard and seen many varying sides about it. BuyBust demonstrates these sides, but with nuances that show how the people involved and affected are just looking for ways to survive a war—one that is merely orchestrated with powerful forces seeking self-interest. It’s an old story with a new take, and it is a must-watch for the nation.